Rising To the Occasion |
by Michael C. Keith

                                I am told he makes a handsome corpse, and becomes           
                                his coffin prodigiously.

                                                                         –– Oliver Goldsmith

When Stubby Layman read that a funeral home in New Orleans was displaying corpses outside of caskets in seated positions, he took keen notice. That’s the way I want to be shown. Nobody gets to look down on you that way. People been looking down at me my whole life. Can’t help it if I’m short. I’ll be damned if they’ll look down on me at my own funeral!

Stubby immediately called the funeral home he’d chosen to handle his remains. For seven years, he’d battled leukemia and now his demise was very close at hand.

“Yes, Mr. Layman. We learned about the new client presentations at our recent funeral director’s convention. We also saw the article and read it with special interest. We certainly can accommodate your desires. Can you tell us what sitting position you’d prefer? Cross-legged, parallel-legged, slightly reclining? Kneeling is also an option. Like in the prayer position. Very touching. And what would you like to be seated on . . . that is, if you’re not kneeling? The choices are really up to you,” said undertaker, Carl Bellowski.

“Oh . . . I hadn’t really thought of that. Lots to think about. I sure want it to be right. I’ll get back to you, okay?”

“Certainly. Your last wishes are Bellowski’s first objective.”

Stubby had heard that line a number of times since contacting the funeral home and had quickly developed an aversion to it. They sound like a damn used car dealership, he thought, hanging the phone up.

                                                            *           *           *

For the next couple of days, Stubby considered a variety of both positions and venues. His first idea was to appear in full monarch regalia in the lavish leather recliner he’d impulsively purchased a year earlier. I’ll get some more use out of that La-Z-Boy before it goes to the Salvation Army. It wasn’t long before he had another idea. Get them to put me behind the wheel in one of those tiny Smart Cars and invite people to sit next to me in the passenger seat. If ever there was a road coffin, that’s it.

The idea that he finally settled on came to him while he was lying in bed unable to sleep. He’d be sitting at a folding card table playing gin rummy. For a dozen years, Stubby participated in a weekly card game with his closest friends, Howie, Sam, and Don. It had been the high point of his week, because living alone as he did left him craving companionship. His job as a supply clerk for a metal fastener company afforded him little contact with people, so getting together with his longtime buddies was a singular pleasure.

The only thing that occasionally tarnished his enjoyment at the get-togethers was the ribbing he got because of rarely having a winning hand. He figured it was a small price to pay for the joy he derived from the gathering. So he took the taunting in seeming stride, concealing the mild annoyance it caused him.

“Hey, it’s my strategy to let you guys win, and it’s working perfectly.”

When he thought about the Saturday night conclaves, he knew that being displayed at a card table was the perfect way to bid his friends farewell. Maybe I can embellish the scene, he snickered, amused by yet another idea.

“I believe we can do that, Mr. Layman. It’ll take some thought, but as you know our client’s last wishes are Bellowski’s first objective.”

“I do. I do. Thank you. I’ll come by next week to help you work it out, Mr. Bellowski,” said Stubby, with a mischievous glint in his eye.

                                                            *           *           *

Stubby spent the last week of his life at a hospice, and when he passed, his body was delivered to Bellowski’s to sit in state. As they had planned, he was placed at a table and playing cards were put in his hands. When the small group of attendees arrived for the wake, they were seated before a black velvet curtain behind which their deceased friend waited. 

Howie, Sam, and Don sat together in the front row and wondered about the unusual setup. They had expected to view their friend in the customary fashion.

“Maybe the coffin’s behind the curtain,” said Don.

“Never seen it done like this,” observed Howie.

“I won’t have what’s behind curtain number one,” joked Sam, causing his comrades to chuckle.

They squelched their inappropriate mirth when Mr. Bellowski appeared.

“Welcome, ladies and gentleman. Thank you for coming to pay your respects to the dearly departed. Mr. Layman has chosen a novel way to exit the world. As you may or more than likely may not know, there’s a new trend in the presentation of the deceased, and Mr. Layman has chosen to bid you goodbye in a somewhat unconventional fashion. Nonetheless, it is the way he wished to say farewell. Here at Bellowski’s a clients last wishes are our first objective.”

With that, the funeral director pulled the curtain aside to reveal Stubby at the card table. The mourners gasped at the first sight of the seated cadaver.

“Jesus, you see what he’s doing?” gulped Howie.

Just as the attendees were trying to come to terms with the scene before them, Stubby’s right arm bolted upward, causing them to gasp again. But what followed caused everyone, including Stubby’s former Saturday night card game chums, to leap from their chairs and dash for the exit.

“Rummy!” shouted the prerecorded voice of Stubby Layman. “I win, you bastards!”

Afterwards, when Carl Bellowski placed Stubby into his casket, he was certain his client’s expression had changed from what he had sculpted. It was never his technique to shape a cadaver’s lips into a broad grin.


Michael C. Keith teaches college and writes fiction. www.michaelckeith.com